As community participation within the May Day march, picnic and concert grow and attention is increasingly focussed upon these celebrations in the Northern Territory, it is important that workers and the broader community understand the significance of May Day.
WHY A DAY IN MAY?
May Day represents the international celebration of organised labour and was conceived from a bloody birth in America. A conference of American and Canadian unions in 1884 set 1 May 1886 as a day of strike action in support of the 8 hour day. In Chicago, a crowd of 80,000 workers were attacked by Police, who gunned down 6 workers. During a subsequent protest demonstration, a further 11 workers were killed. A further 7 workers were arrested of whom 4 were hanged, a fifth killed himself to cheat the noose and 2 others were imprisoned for life.
In Australia, the “Sydney Morning Herald” in 1890 reported that in Vienna the wealthy were so unnerved by the support for May Day that they were placing their valuables in the custody of banks.
Two years earlier, Australian workers rallied to the cause of British Dockers during the famous ‘Dockers strike’ of 1888. Of $48,000 contributed from overseas, more than $30,000 was sent by Australian workers. In 1891 squatters in Queensland determined to break the ‘Shearers union’ employed scab labour. The Shearers truck and the Queensland government sent in police and armed troops to arrest strikers and put them in gaol.
MAY FOR AUSTRALIA
Shearers at Barcaldine staged a May Day March which demonstrated widespread support from overseas with workers representing a number of European nations who had backed them. The major State Trades and Labor Councils from Victoria and New South Wales held their eight hour Labour Day celebrations in April showing little inclination to transfer the celebrations to May Day until the 1920’s.
The international May Day call was only partly heeded due to ideological splits in the trade union movement. May Day since has gathered in strength in Australia and is now part of the worldwide celebration.
MAY DAY HOLIDAY IN THE NT
Northern Territory unions have played an important role in building on the bonds of trade unionism which have spread worldwide with the demand for May Day to be recognised as a celebration of workers rights. The union movement acknowledges that historically workers' struggles had been bitter and had cost many lives in the pursuit of improved wages, conditions and living standards.
Whilst every Australian State and Territory celebrates Labour Day it is only in the Northern Territory and Queensland that 1 May is celebrated as a public holiday. In the Northern Territory we actually still celebrate May Day and declare it as a public holiday which is actually titled ‘May Day’, despite the fact that the holiday is observed annually on the first Monday in May.
In Darwin, workers and their families participate in the May Day march and picnic/concert on ‘The Esplanade’ at Bicentennial Park. In Alice Springs unionists and their families participate in the Bangtail Muster. From time to time, unionists living and working in Gove also celebrate May Day with a picnic.